By J.Isravel Prabhakaran, Department of TTM
Photography has been the subject of varied, intelligent and challenging historical analysis and critical debate since its infancy. A critical fascination with the medium has inspired many quite different responses to photographs. Researchers and historians have contributed a long list of works on the history and evolution of photography, detailing technical and artistic developments, which authors and critics, and indeed often the photographers themselves, have wrestled in print with the complex issues, aesthetic, socio-political, or philosophical rose by this image process. Recognition of the importance of history to the understanding of photography is evidenced in the title and context of the first manual of photography, “The History and Description of the Process of the Daguerreotype and Diorama”. Most of the early inventors of the photographic process gave account of the origin of their discoveries not just to establish priority but also to assist comprehension of the value and application of the technology. In 1840’s the novelty and excitement of the invention tended to dominate commentaries. Photography was a subject of awe, when William Fox Talbot annotated one of his earliest success, ‘the negative image of the lattice window at Lacock, Wiltshire’, he noted specifically that when the image was first made, he had been able to count every one of the panes of glass which it had recorded. Joseph Ellis proved remarkably prescient as an author and collector.
In 1846, he published, ‘Photography – A Popular Treatise’, an important early survey of technical progress in the medium, detailing the achievements of Talbot, Niepce, Daguerre and Claudet. The dominant historical perspective on 19th century photography has, however focused an idea of a ‘new medium’ a proposition first advanced by Elisabeth Eastlake in 1857. Her essay, ‘Photography’ published anonymously surveyed the short history of the medium in technical terms but also for a critical perspective which compared photography with conventional artistic visual media as ‘a new medium of communication’. In 1859, Oliver Wendall Holmes went further and described photography as ‘a mirror with memory’, his metaphor implies that the photograph is a reflection but one that has been fixed or frozen in time. Antoine Claudet, a French photographer wrote in 1861, “Photography indeed can invent, create and compose as well as copy”. In fact, particularly in portraiture the machine copies what the true artists has invented, created and composed which could never have been copied or represented if the photographer had not possessed genius. In 1864 Dr Hugh Diamond – editor of The Photographic Journal, and pioneer photographer of mental illness – wrote the report on the International Exhibition in 1862. In this assessment of the state of photography, he claimed there was ‘scarce a branch of art, of science of economics, or indeed of human interest in its widest application of this art [photography] has not been made useful’. In medical science, he said, it was used in ‘morbid anatomy of malformation and disease generally’ as well as recording ‘the progress of cases and illustration of surgical treatment’. The long-standing tussle between scientific investigators and their illustrators offers one clear example of this process. Before photography, documents were obtained for scientists from artists, but the men of science opposed, what they saw as, the personal vision and aesthetic preferences of artist.
Photography, and in particular the photographic document, slotted neatly into this new vision of objective observation. Throughout its history, the camera has repeatedly been seen as an objective machine that captures information without any interference from the artist. Before the advent of photography police identification of suspects or repeat offenders relied upon eye-witness description and memory. The police began using photography in the 1870’s with the emergence of finger printing and subsequently DNA testing. When finger printing was combined with photographs, a powerful new technology of identification and surveillance came into being. One important factor in the development of pictorialism was the rise of mass amateur photography. In 1880’s, George Eastman launched the Kodak camera, which enormously simplified the photographic process and reduced the cost. Most writings on photography and its history to this time have been of technical nature, emphasizing the practical rather than the creative aspects of the medium.